Plans to introduce Wildfire Emergency Act next week to fund key projects, enhance firefighting training
Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today laid out actions to bolster California’s defenses against catastrophic wildfire, including a bill she plans to introduce next week.
“We’ve yet to enter California’s traditional fire season but we’ve already seen two fires burn more than 1,000 acres. The fact is, California’s fire season now runs the entire calendar year,” Feinstein said. “We must do more to prepare for larger, deadlier and more destructive fires. The state is investing significant resources and the federal government needs to match that effort, especially considering 57 percent of forests in California are on federal land.
“Yesterday I spoke with USDA Secretary Vilsack and Interior Secretary Haaland and told them how important it is to California that the federal government invest in prevention and mitigation for both wildfire and drought. Climate change is here and we need to be committing sufficient resources at the level this crisis demands.”
Wildfire Emergency Act
Senator Feinstein next week will introduce the Wildfire Emergency Act, a bill to fund wildfire mitigation projects, harden critical infrastructure against wildfires and bolster wildfire workforce development. The bill will:
- Authorize funds for Forest Service projects to restore forests and reduce the risk of wildfire on large swaths of land by removing hazardous fuel.
- Fund a grant program to protect key infrastructure such as the power grid and hospitals and allow for the retrofitting of homes.
- Establish training centers for foresters and forest managers and create a new workforce development program to advance their career training.
“This bill will include critical elements so that we can reduce the potential for future fires and protect our infrastructure from fires that do occur,” Feinstein said. “We also need to do a better job of forest management training, and this bill will help achieve that goal.”
Hiring, retaining federal firefighters
In April, Feinstein led a bipartisan group of Western senators calling on the GAO to review the hiring and retention of federal firefighters at the five agencies responsible for wildland fire management. On May 7, the GAO agreed to conduct the review, a move that will help bolster congressional actions in the coming months.
“We can have all the trucks and tankers and airplanes in the world to fight fires, but without firefighters to man the lines, we’ll lose the battle,” Feinstein said. We must do more to support these individuals who put their lives on the line to save others, which includes paying them fairly and incentivizing them to remain in the ranks of wildland firefighters.”
Fair pay for federal firefighters
In January, Senator Feinstein introduced the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act. The bill would eliminate arbitrary overtime pay caps that limit the availability of federal firefighters later in the fire season. The bill has bipartisan support and has been endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Federation of Federal Employees, Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Senator Feinstein is also a cosponsor of a bill introduced in April by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that would require the Office of Personnel Management to create a distinct wildland firefighter job and pay series that takes into account the hazardous nature and physical hardship of the job.
“The overtime pay cap for federal wildland firefighters is a huge obstacle for agencies looking to retain experienced firefighters. Eliminating the cap would ensure these individuals are fairly paid and help stabilize the firefighting services within key federal agencies,” Feinstein said. “We also need to ensure the pay scale used by agencies matches the dangers that these brave men and women confront on the ground.”
Transitioning from seasonal to year-round workforce
In March, Senator Feinstein led more than 20 members of Congress calling on USDA and the Interior Department to reclassify federal firefighters as permanent positions. Currently these jobs are considered seasonal, even in the face of longer fire seasons and the critical need for fire mitigation work like the removal of dead trees.
“Federal wildland firefighters are currently seasonal positions, which can make hiring and retaining personnel more difficult,” Feinstein said. “We need to transition to a year-round firefighting force, similar to California’s firefighting agencies, which will make it easier to hire and retain a well-trained workforce.”
Transfer of C-130 air tankers
In 2018, a provision authored by Senator Feinstein to transfer seven C-130 air tankers to Cal Fire to help fight wildfires was signed into law as part of that year’s defense authorization bill.
Since then, Senator Feinstein has worked with the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to expedite the modifications that will allow the transfers to be completed. The Air Force is currently working to install a Retardant Delivery System in the aircraft and to reinforce the wing boxes to ensure the planes are capable of delivering fire retardant and carrying out necessary fire maneuvers.
“Adding additional C-130 tankers will help Cal Fire quickly and safely put out wildfires, protecting firefighters and the communities they’re protecting. Getting the rest of these plans transferred as soon as possible is a top priority,” Feinstein said.
National Guard assistance
Senator Feinstein on May 18 questioned Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, at an Appropriations Committee hearing about what additional steps the National Guard may take to assist with wildfires. Video of the exchange is available here.
Senator Feinstein: “I very much appreciate your highlighting the California National Guard’s very heroic efforts battling wildfires. Last year alone, 4 million acres in California burned, 10,000 structures were destroyed – 5,000 of them homes – 31 people lost their lives. So I am very interested in what the guard can do to be helpful to us. Do you have any suggestions that you might care to make.”
Gen. Hokanson: “When we look at the way we fight forest fires, we really kind of take an approach that we’ve learned from hurricanes. This March was the first time we actually had a wildland firefighting symposium where we brought all the states together that fight forest fires, along with the National Interagency Fire Center, to take really a different approach because it’s no longer a fire season, we start call it a fire year now.
“What we’ve tried to do is identify – particularly in California and Washington this year where aviation units may be deploying – identifying states to make sure that they train their air crews so they can fill that gap in case there’s a need in California or any of the states that fight wildland firefighting.
“We’re also looking at the ability – when we look at some of our Title 32 active and guard and reserve personnel, traditionally they are only on for 72 hours under immediate response authority. I’m working on a policy which I should have completed by the end of the month to give adjutants general the ability to retain some of those personnel in an emergency basis to help support firefighting because it’s absolutely critical our leaders are with them at all times.”